I continue to be fascinated with the concept of the architect-leader as described by Hill, Mellon, Laker and Goddard in “The One Type of Leader Who Can Turn Around a Failing School.” (Harvard Business Review) There are two compelling aspects to this kind of leadership. The first is intentionality; architect-leaders formulate strategy with a purpose. The second is structures; architect-leaders understand how structures shape perspective and influence decision-making.
As the most prevalent management tool in a leader’s arsenal, meetings represent an opportunity to shape learning, behavior and collaboration more than most structures. And yet, meetings are under siege. In the most recent edition of the Harvard Business Review, Leslie Perlow, Constance Noonan Hadley, and Eunice Eun advocate for a thorough evaluation of meetings within an organization. In “Stop the Meeting Madness” these three researchers cite damning statistics on the efficacy of meetings. Seventy-one percent in their study said meetings were inefficient and ineffective; 65% stated that meetings prevented them from completing their own work; and 62% agreed that meetings miss opportunities to bring a team closer.
Schools are certainly not immune from “meeting madness.” I recently spoke with a relatively new head about how she manages her time. “I’m racing from one meeting to the next,” she told me, acknowledging that many of the meetings did not advance the school. And, of course, all of us have been victimized by faculty meetings with an administrator droning on about a policy that has little or no relevance to teaching and learning. New heads of schools often inherit these structures and perpetuate them with little thought about what they want these structures to achieve.
What should heads of schools do?
First, new heads should examine the meeting structure as part of understanding the internal landscape of reality. As new heads interview administrators, faculty and trustees, they should include questions about the effectiveness of meetings as a tool to advance the school. Not only can the new head gain insight on how work gets done and the flow of information, but there may also be some low-hanging fruit in the form of simple changes that will serve to enhance the new head’s brand—a critical goal during a transition period.
For the veteran head, leading an evaluation of the effectiveness of meetings—composition of the group, agendas, collaboration, clear goals, efficiency, follow-up, and more—can be both scary and powerful. Because an evaluation of meetings can easily result in an indirect critique of the leader’s management style, the head will have to put herself in a vulnerable position—difficult for most of us who are used to being in charge. And yet the risk of vulnerability is well worth the opportunity to create new structures that promote better decision-making, the mission of the school, and the vision of the head. When the head insists on this organizational self-reflection, she signals the importance of focusing her team’s efforts on the achievement of the school’s goals rather than the massaging of the head’s ego. That pivot can unleash extraordinary effort and creativity.
Although reflection on the effectiveness of meetings can be liberating, it is important for the head to resist the tyranny of order. Citing a statement from a well-known executive, my first head of school often said, “Efficiency is the enemy of effectiveness.” Some meetings should focus on execution, but others should focus on learning from each other—gaining deep insights into a challenge or developing a richer understanding of the context. We learn from each other. One of my board chairs frequently asked, “Are you going into this meeting with a fixed outcome or not?” It was a great question that helped me focus on process and its relation to outcomes. Sensitized to emerging opportunities for learning, the best leaders can toggle between “fixed” and “organic” within the same meeting.
Meetings are organizational structures, and as such, they shape behavior. Architect-leaders understand this and use this management tool to help the school achieve the head’s vision and better live its mission. Systems thinker Peter Senge once told a group of organizational leaders, “If you want a seed to grow into a plant, you don’t stand over it and yell, ‘Grow!’ Rather, you put fertilizer in the ground and water the ground. You create the conditions that will maximize the potential of the plant.” Meetings can either bring out the collective wisdom and creativity of a team or they can stifle it. As such, heads should spend some time thinking about this critical management tool.
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